Professor Juan Matthews, from The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute, examines how committed the UK political parties are to nuclear power. The last six months have been worrying for the nuclear power industry and with the election coming up on 8 June he asks what does the industry need from the new government?
The view from Europe
- March 2017 problems in Toshiba came to a head with filing for bankruptcy of its Westinghouse nuclear subsidiary. Problems with construction of two twin reactor projects in the USA using the AP1000 reactor design, led to delays and cost overruns of such magnitude that they threaten the viability of the parent company.
- 20 May 2017, the New Scientist magazine ran a pessimistic article under the headline “Nuclear Holiday”. This article made the assessment that “New reactors will not be monuments to the nuclear renaissance – they will be mausoleums”. Tough stuff.
- 21 May a referendum confirmed the decision by the Swiss government to phase out nuclear power in favour of more renewables. Germany is already going down this route. In his campaign, the new French President Macron took a hard line on reducing France’s heavy dependence on nuclear power, but recent reports look like the realities of office will make him backtrack on this.
The future for UK nuclear new build
Since 2011, UK policy is that we will build 16 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2030, to replace our ageing reactor fleet. Investment is the key issue in any new UK project and without foreign investment the new build targets cannot be achieved. Five sites have been chosen and work is progressing on three of these sites:
- EdF partnering with CGN in China are building two EPRs (European pressurised water reactors) using French technology at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.
- Horizon Nuclear was acquired by Hitachi in 2011 and is preparing to build two Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWRs) using Japanese technology at Wylfa in Anglesey.
- NuGen currently owned by Toshiba were planning to build two pressurised water reactors (PWRs) using the Westinghouse AP1000 technology at Moorside, adjacent to Sellafield, but the ownership and reactor type may change.
EdF Energy announced its Final Investment Decision to construct the Hinkley point C project in June last year. This coincided with the formation of the new Government after the referendum to leave the EU. It was with some astonishment, after the Cameron Government’s enthusiasm for the project, that Theresa May announced a review of security aspects of China’s involvement in the investment. The review was completed in September last year and the Office for Nuclear Regulation gave permission for start of construction in March this year.
How committed are the UK political parties to nuclear power?
Disappointingly, the only reference to civil nuclear power in the 2017 Conservative Manifesto is: “We shall also take action to protect our critical national infrastructure. We will ensure that foreign ownership of companies controlling important infrastructure does not undermine British security or essential services. We have already strengthened ministerial scrutiny and control in respect of civil nuclear power and will take a similarly robust approach across a limited range of other sectors, such as telecoms, defence and energy.”
The 2017 Labour Manifesto is more supportive: “The UK has the world’s oldest nuclear industry, and nuclear will continue to be part of the energy supply. We will support further nuclear projects and protect nuclear workers’ jobs and pensions. There are considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically.”
Scottish Nationalist Party
The Scottish Nationalist Party has consistently been opposed to new nuclear power despite Scotland being well served by its four Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors that provide 12% of its electricity. In its 2017 manifesto it criticises the Hinkley Point C Project (Somerset was not in Scotland last time I visited) as a waste of money.
The 2017 Liberal Democrat Manifesto also gives some encouragement: “….. Accept that new nuclear power stations can play a role in electricity supply provided concerns about safety, disposal of waste and cost are adequately addressed, new technology is incorporated, and there is no public subsidy for new build.”
UKIP support a diversified market for all fossil, nuclear and renewable energy sources unencumbered by climate change legislation. The Green Party want to replace nuclear power with renewables. Plaid Cymru makes no mention of nuclear power in its manifesto.
The whole future of the UK interest in nuclear new build and small modular reactors (SMRs) is uncertain. A competition was started in March 2016 and the results of this have not been released. No doubt it comes low in the priorities before Brexit and a snap election. However, there has been an increase in research funding through the ring fencing of about £250M from the spending review in 2015 and the Budget last year. £20M of this has been released to projects to prepare for the main budget to be available over the next 5 years. This money is vital for fission research in the UK to continue to expand to prepare for increased nuclear generation and for future reactors.
Why the UK needs nuclear power
The prospect of significant global warming is looming increasingly with reports each year of the retreating arctic ice-cap. The need for a balanced mix of carbon-neutral energy sources is almost universally accepted – apart from by the current President of the USA. Nuclear power must be part of that mix to ensure that inevitably increasing energy costs are kept within reasonable limits and electricity supply is secure.
Contrary to press reports, electricity from nuclear power (when performing well) is cheaper than that from renewable sources, as can be seen in McKinsey report “Pathways to a low-carbon economy”.
An exception is on-shore wind generation, which is currently discouraged in the UK. The costs of offshore wind are now decreasing and will soon be comparable with nuclear. Solar power is good for distributed generation but that is hard to achieve in a not so sunny, high population density country like the UK. However, both wind power and solar power are intermittent, and there is an additional price to pay for continuity of supply.
Hydro power, with high capacity reservoirs, is the ideal renewable source as it can follow demand and even act as an energy storage systems. Unfortunately, in the UK, the range of sites is limited and the environmental costs are often high.
The use of fossil fuel is no longer sustainable and even with carbon-capture and storage of CO2 is a more expensive option. It is likely that before 2030 most fossil fuel facilities and power plant will become stranded assets.
The need to expand nuclear and renewable energy sources has a downside that can be fixed with some imagination. Large infrastructure projects suffer from the lack of UK manufacturing input, which reduces the value returned to the UK-economy. Adoption of new technologies provides opportunities for UK companies to break into the market. This is particularly a problem for nuclear power because of the conservative nature of the industry and the long gap since the construction of the last nuclear power station. Engagement now with the future technologies of small modular reactors and Generation IV reactors could, with Government encouragement, enable the UK to once again to have a nuclear manufacturing industry and one that could have a multi-billion pound market.
The nuclear industry now needs three things from the new UK Government on 9 June:
- A commitment to complete the construction of the planned 16 GWe of new nuclear generating capacity;
- Reassurance that that the additional R&D funding for nuclear fission for £250M over 5 years will be available beyond the £20M already committed.
- A proper review of the contribution of small modular reactors and Generation IV systems to nuclear power beyond 2030 and clear plans, if positive, to establish a programme for advanced reactor demonstration and supporting development of the UK supply chain.